Uber Halts Autonomous Vehicle Testing After Arizona Pedestrian Fatality

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Uber Halts Autonomous Vehicle Testing After Arizona Pedestrian Fatality


March 20, 2018


Update, 11 a.m. Tuesday: Developments in the fatal Uber autonomous vehicle crash in Tempe, Arizona:

  • Police investigators say the driverless vehicle, a Volvo SUV, was traveling about 40 mph in a 35 mph zone when it struck and killed Elaine Herzberg, 49. Police say Herzberg was pushing a bicycle and was struck immediately after stepping off a curb outside a crosswalk. Investigators say it appears the vehicle did not slow down before hitting Herzberg.
  • The Arizona Republic reported Tuesday that the backup driver in the Uber autonomous vehicle, identified as Rafaela Vasquez, 44, was convicted in the early 2000s of attempted armed robbery and served nearly four years in prison. Uber did not immediately comment on the driver’s record.

    The Republic notes:

    “The San Francisco-based company recently came under fire for hiring felons. The Colorado Public Utilities Commission company fined Uber’s parent company $8.9 million in November 2017 after an investigation determined the ride-hailing service had hired nearly 60 drivers with previous felony convictions.

    Colorado state law prevents individuals with felony convictions, alcohol or drug-related driving offenses, unlawful sexual offenses and major traffic violations from working for rideshare companies.

Uber attributed the unlawful hirings to a “process area” inconsistent with Colorado’s ridesharing regulations. The company said all drivers must undergo a third-party background screening “per Uber safety policies and Colorado state regulations.”

Original post, last updated 2:25 p.m. Monday

Uber says it’s suspending its testing of autonomous vehicles after one of its self-driving cars struck and killed a woman crossing a street in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe.

The National Transportation Safety Board announced it is sending a four-member team to investigate the crash.

California’s Consumer Watchdog, which has criticized the state’s plan to begin allowing testing of driverless vehicles on public roads beginning next month, called for a nationwide moratorium on the testing of what it called “robot cars.”

Tempe police said Monday that the vehicle was in autonomous mode with an operator behind the wheel late Sunday night when a woman walking outside a crosswalk was hit.

The victim, identified in media accounts as 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg of Mesa, was transported to a local hospital where she died.

Uber acknowledged the fatality on Twitter, and CEO Dara Khosrowshahi extended condolences to the victim’s family and said the company is cooperating with the investigation into the incident.

The crash occurred at Mill Avenue and Curry Road, a busy intersection near a Tempe music venue called the Marquee Theater.

Uber began testing its autonomous vehicles in San Francisco — without notifying local or state authorities — in December 2016. The company backed down from operating the driverless SUVs — one of which rolled through a red light downtown — only after the California Department of Motor Vehicles moved to revoke the vehicles’ registrations.

Uber shipped the cars to Arizona after Gov. Doug Ducey invited the company to test them there. It has also been conducting testing in Pittsburgh and Toronto.

The Arizona fatality occurred just two weeks before the state of California opens public roads to autonomous vehicles with no driver on board.

Earlier this month, the DMV finalized new regulations for the operation of driverless vehicles and could begin issuing permits as early as April 2.

In a statement, the DMV said agency officials “are aware of the Uber crash in Arizona, but we have not been briefed on the details of the crash at this time. We plan to follow up with Uber to get more information.”

Consumer Watchdog has said the DMV was wrong to move ahead with its new autonomous vehicle regulations and said the Sunday night incident shows the difficulty the driverless cars have responding safely to pedestrians, cyclists and human-driven vehicles.

“There should be a national moratorium on all robot car testing on public roads until the complete details of this tragedy are made public and are analyzed by outside experts so we understand what went so terribly wrong,” John M. Simpson, the group’s privacy and technology project director, said in a statement. “Arizona has been the wild west of robot car testing with virtually no regulations in place. That’s why Uber and (Alphabet’s) Waymo test there. When there’s no sheriff in town, people get killed.”

In a brief announcement, the NTSB said its team will investigate the Uber vehicle’s “interaction with the environment, other vehicles and vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and bicyclists.” The agency said it was probing the incident in part because it shed light “on new safety issues.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation is considering other voluntary guidelines that it says will help foster innovation. But Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao also has said technology and automobile companies need to allay public fears of self-driving vehicles, citing a poll showing that 78 percent of people fear riding in autonomous vehicles

The number of states considering legislation related to autonomous vehicles gradually has increased each year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2017 alone, 33 states introduced legislation.

California requires manufacturers to report autonomous vehicle collisions or incidents in which an autonomous driving system must be disengaged to allow intervention by a human to the DMV. As of early March, the agency said it had received 59 such reports.

This post includes reporting from The Associated Press and NPR.

Consumer Watchdog
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